Jack in the Box

Chapter 58

Davy Loomis - Connecticut: December, 2000

I woke up the morning after the big shootout feeling uncomfortable, and when my head started to figure things out, the discomfort was from being on the rec-room floor. Thoughts flooded my mind, both good and bad.

It had been a good night that went horribly wrong, and then somehow turned out just fine. I had seen a kid I knew who I thought was dead on a sidewalk, and was petrified when a major gun battle broke out right near my friend's house while I was there. We spent an hour on the floor while the police warred with the gang no more than two hundred feet from us. Our lights were out, and we were all afraid of an errant bullet finding us, each of us aware of how often that happens, and very aware of our own mortality.

It was the first time that I'd ever been truly afraid for my life, so quivering with fear that I found myself making involuntary noises, and shaking uncontrollably. I didn't wet my pants, but I'm sure I would have if I hadn't just peed before it started. It was just crazy, all the gunfire, all the screaming, all the rage, and all of it happening just outside our windows.

When the shooting finally stopped, when we could hear somebody on a loudspeaker giving orders to the people in the house where it all went down, only then did we sit up and turn the lights on. When I felt my face, it was covered with tears, and I had never realized I'd been crying. I was embarrassed until I saw that I wasn't alone. I was less ashamed of myself when I saw everyone else had tear streaked faces, but I didn't feel any better about it. How terrifying can things get? What must being in a war be like?

We huddled, those of us there, kindred in our fear, with nothing immediate to joke about. It was doubly awful because joking is what we usually did. None of us had seen real-life violence played out like it just had, and it had been building up all week.

I wanted out of there, and I don't mean Juan's house, but totally out of that place, out of my environment. There was this craziness, this murderous mania that lived there with me, and I didn't want it anymore. Gang violence was usually internalized, but this week most of the victims weren't members, just people who got in the way of some nervous idiot with a gun. Actions like that had everyone on edge

Before, gang violence was a more abstract thing, something they did to themselves to settle whatever needed to be settled. Now they were hitting non-members, and the only possible reason was sheer cruelty. Sammy Alvarez did not deserve to die like he did. Felix Rosa did not deserve to lay bleeding in the street the way he did. Sammy was only fifteen, Felix eighteen and out of school. They were both decent kids, who shared a fierce determination to better themselves, grow themselves out of the surroundings they were raised in.

Now look, and for what? It was so painful for me to confront, it raised so many new fears about my own safety, about everybody's safety, that I felt out of control, like my own destiny wouldn't be shaped by me and the people I loved, but by some shooter who feared anyone he didn't know.

I really missed my parents right then. I'd missed them a little ever since they'd been gone, but Mike and the others were there to keep me busy. Now I needed my Dad, and he was in Vermont, and I wanted him to show me the part I was missing, the little nuance that would make me feel safe again.

I looked around, "I'm going home, guys. I need to be there." I wanted the proximity of my parents' things, the scent of them in my own house. I needed it.

Paul and Juan were close together on the sofa, Seth and Guy on the floor in front of it. They all seemed to be washed up, trying to comfort one another, but I was desperate to be home. Paul tried to smile, "Be careful out there. Thank Paulina for the pizza."

Juan said, "You're welcome to stay here, amigo. You know that, I hope."

I smiled the best I could, "I know. I'd just feel better at home."

Juan's mother said from behind me, "You should stay, Davy. I don't think you should be driving the streets on a night like this."

I turned to her, "You might be right, but I'll take my chances. I bet the streets are safer right now than they've been in a long time."

Her considerable chest heaved, then she sighed, "Sad but true. Call us when you get home?"

I said, "I will, I promise," and turned back to the guys saying, "Don't get up, I can find my way."

That wasn't to be. When I had my outer clothes on, I was accosted at the door by the four of them, and our arms got all entwined. Juan and Guy each kissed a cheek, while Paul and Seth held out their hands to shake. I looked at their faces, finding both torment and love in them, and the love was for me. I could return it, too. It was easier these days. I said, "I love you guys. I'll call when I'm home."

There were more hugs and good wishes, and then I headed down the stairs feeling better. I had friends, good ones, guys I'd met on my own and somehow connected with, really connected with, and I didn't see anything that could break those friendships. Guy had been around since I'd met Juan, but in a little brother role, kind of comic relief against Juan's seriousness. Seth was new, Paul's friend at first, but a really neat person on his own.

I was apprehensive about the ride home, all nervous again when I got there. I was feeling bad about what my friends from Morton had seen, worried that they'd want to just go home. I called Juan's house from the driveway, told his mother that I was safe at home, and headed inside. I felt edgier than I'd ever been in my life.

I was met by Mike, and he hugged me so tight I thought he'd break my bones, but it felt good and I finally started to relax. I fell into him but didn't want to talk after all. I wanted to be alone, so I went upstairs for a soak in my parent's Jacuzzi bathtub, a device that could relax anything out of you, and relax I did.

It was a shame in a lot of ways, that day. It was a shame that I'd taken Mike skiing for the first time in his life, and failed dismally as a teacher, a shame that I had personally almost driven him away from a sport that I loved. A shame when I left them for ...

I made love to Melanie for the first time earlier. I had hustled to get her home before six, and there was a message from her mother that their planned outing had been delayed until eight and, for the first time since I started going there, nobody else was home. There's nothing average about Mel, but we did a perfectly average thing; we started making out on the family room sofa. One thing led to another, and the other thing led us up to Melanie's bedroom. She was ready, and insisted that she was at least as anxious as I and, well, I guess I should stop right there.

Perfect times lead to perfect memories, and I lolled in the tub for a long time, making myself very happy with the recollection, as the music began to crank louder downstairs. It had to be loud to hear it in that bathroom over the noise from the jets, and it was music I liked, so I relaxed even more, pushing the horrible parts of the week into the back of my mind.

When I got out, I was as relaxed as a rubber band. I put some clothes on and went downstairs barefoot, only to find the Morton kids dancing up a storm and having a ball. I stared at first, then grinned, thinking everybody deals with bad things in their own way. Making do, my father would say. I immediately got pulled into it, dancing first with Annie, then with Paulina, then it was a free-for-all, just dancing in general until we were all pooped.

I made two trips to the kitchen after we stopped, bringing back chips and sodas, then I plopped on the floor, my back against a chair, while Mike lowered the volume so we could talk. We were all a little sweaty and red in the face, but damn, I felt good. We talked quietly, the others filling me in on the news I hadn't heard, the news about other gunfire that day. We all grew quiet, but hardly somber. We weren't joking around exactly, but none of us were getting emotional over what was to us, really, a bad situation involving others.

After Annie took her pill, she and Mike started to head upstairs, then they stopped. Mike said, "We should all sleep in here, that way Davy don't hafta be alone."

I was surprised, and started to protest, but it was already a done deal in their minds. We stripped beds of blankets and pillows, moved the coffee table out of the way, and stretched out in a row in front of the sofa, me squarely in the middle between Annie and Paulina. I was embarrassed when Tony and Mike kissed the girls goodnight, then felt better when I got pecks from both Annie and Paulina before falling asleep within the comforting presence of my friends. My last thought was that Mike had a touch of genius about him.

When I started to come around in the morning, I found myself in pleasurable, if embarrassing, circumstances. I was spooned up against Paulina's backside, my arm draped over her, my head in the crook of her neck. Annie was butt-to-butt with me, still sound asleep. I got disentangled, with some regret, and when I sat up I saw that Mike wasn't there. That's when I heard some banging and yelling from the kitchen, so I hurried to the bathroom, then stopped short at the kitchen door.

Mike was making breakfast, and he was murdering it first. I watched him put a pepper on the cutting board, then he took Dad's biggest knife, held it over his head with both hands while he bowed, then he yelled, "You die, Zortan." and thunked the thing clean in half. He started a little victory dance.

I leaned against the door jamb and started clapping. Mike jumped, then turned around, red in the face and showing every tooth in his mouth with his embarrassed grin. What a sight. He hadn't cleaned up yet, and not a single hair on his head was in place. He was wearing baggy sweat pants and a too-large t-shirt that was partially pulled out and hanging down one side. He recovered quickly, a huge smile on his face. "Hi Davy. I wake you up?"

I had to laugh. Except for my father, Mike was the only person I knew who really had enthusiasm for mornings, and I had come to treasure those early hours with him. I asked, "Karate Kid?"

Mike blushed again, "I guess." He handed me the meat cleaver, "You try." He puffed out his chest, "Together, you and me, we'll get these fuckers in the fryin' pan where they belong."

I laughed, "They're resisting?"

"Only at first," he said, as he chopped up the pepper he'd just killed. Then he set a big Spanish onion on the board and yelled, "There's another one. Get him, Davy."

I chuckled, "Do I bow first?"

"Of course you bow first. Hurry up, before he gets away."

I closed my eyes, hefted the cleaver straight up in both hands, tried to picture exactly where that onion was, bowed my head, then let that guillotine fall hard. I probably should have kept my eyes open. I heard a chunk of onion hit somewhere to my right, but when I looked, the main body of it was still there, wiggling as if it were alive from the mistreatment, with only a slice missing.

Mike said brightly, "Nice try. Here, try the sword, the axe is probably too heavy." He handed me the big knife as I put the cleaver down.

This time I kept my eyes open, said, "Don't look at me like that, this is what you get for being an onion." and let the knife fall, slicing the onion cleanly in half.

Mike hugged me, "Good hit, man. Chop it up. I gotta get the grits going'."

I said, "Um..."

Mike's eyes went wide, "You don't have any?"

I shook my head, and he grinned, "Never mind. We'll make omelets instead." He put his hands on my shoulders, a hopeful grin on his face, "You gotta show me how to flip 'em like you do."

I had to laugh. Mike was wired, and he was funny like that. I looked at him and asked, "You take your happy pill already?"

To my surprise, he leaned into me, stretched his arms around my back and snuck his chin up on my shoulder. He murmured, "I love you, Davy. I love you so much, you'll never know."

I pulled back a little to look at him, then fell back into the hug. "I love you too, Mike. I really do." I grinned, "Ready for an omelet flipping lesson?"

Mike nodded happily and I pulled out a box of eggs. While I cracked them into the blender, Mike gave me a 'Zap." for each one, and that kept me laughing long enough to get everything mixed up.

Then the omelet lesson started. Mike knew how to make them, just not how to flip them with the pan, which is pretty easy.

I probably made a few messes when my dad was teaching me to flip things in the frying pan, but I don't recall anything close to the piles of slop we ended up with before Mike figured it out. I probably should have thought of it in the first place, but we turned the stove off while Mike practiced with a deck of cards in a cold pan. When he had that down, he played with a mess that we'd scraped off the stove top until he had the action down pretty well, then I scrambled up some more eggs for him, just in time for Mike to put on a show for the others as they straggled in.

Mike's omelets came out great, though I don't even want to think about what they must have weighed. Stuffed with ham, peppers, onions and great globs of cheese, they were probably five eggs each, and very filling. Stuffed is what we were after we finished, and Mike stood for a boastful and exaggerated bow when Paulina started a round of applause for the omelets.

We sat there for quite awhile talking about things. Paulina asked me to, and I reluctantly went to get the paper. I was interested in the written accounts of the previous night's events, of course, I just wasn't sure I had the stomach for it. When I got the paper off the front step, I unfolded it to see the headline, which read, "GANG VIOLENCE ERUPTS! GANG MEMBER KILLED, OFFICER INJURED IN SHOOTOUT"

I looked at the pictures and read captions while I stumbled back into the kitchen. The front page just had the first paragraphs of a lot of different stories, so I settled on one and turned to it as soon as I sat down.

It was sickening to read. A little girl, four years old, was shot and hospitalized because her eighteen year old mother was going with the leader of a rival gang. The others injured ranged in age from sixteen up to twenty-two. I couldn't look at it any longer so I offered the paper around, but nobody wanted it.

Annie seemed the most stunned by things, Paulina the most touched. She sat there grimly and silently for a long time, while Anton tried to get her attention, but she was lost in thought. She finally looked around and croaked, "There but for the goodness of my father go I." She sobbed, "Do you know how close to that I was? Me, my brothers and sisters?" She shook her head slowly, holding thumb and first finger out close together, "That close. We were that close to getting split up to different foster homes." She looked around, defeat in her eyes, "We wouldn't have had a prayer, not a prayer in the world if we ended up apart. Oh, maybe one of us would get lucky, end up in the suburbs, but people just don't want Puerto Rican kids. They think we're trouble and, "she lifted her arms in frustration, "these…these...fucking idiots give them all the ammunition they need to hold onto those beliefs."

Tony was stroking Paulina's arm. "Come on, Pauli, let's talk about somethin' else."

Paulina shook her head again, "I can't think of something else, Ace, I just can't. There has got to be a way to make these kids understand that they're not heroes because they died for the cause, worse that they killed somebody for the cause. This is all crazy because there is no cause. It's not enough to be a bully anymore, just push someone around. No, now you have to be willing and...and fucking eager to kill, and it doesn't matter who you kill. Look at these ages. This is sick. It's degenerate. That little girl was four years old. You tell me what her sins were, then I'll know why she was shot down in the street."

She finally leaned to Anton in defiant despair, helplessness taking over her face. It was painful for me to watch a strong girl like Paulina lose it like that, so I took the opportunity to start picking up dishes. Mike put his hand on my wrist, as if saying "Watch this," so I settled back down, drawing a curious glance from Annie, who had seemed ready to help with the cleanup.

Anton said, barely audibly, "Paulina, good people come out of those places, Davy told me so. I know you got lucky, but other kids do it on their own. Look at Juan and Guy, at Tom. They got no better than anyone else, but they'll make it up in the world. Look at Bobby, I mean how shitty can a life get? He'll make it up, too, just 'cause of the way he is." He smiled at her, "You wouldn't be no gang girl, not in a million years, no matter what happened. You'd be too busy tryin' to find your family, and I know that's the truth, 'cause I never seen any family as tight as yours."

Paulina's eyes were shiny with forming tears, and she stared at Anton, something like a smile forming. She put her hand over his and said, "You have the last two parts right, Ace. If we had been split up, I'd go to the ends of the earth to find them, and we are close, more than anyone I know. Whether I could make it on my own, well, I don't know that."

Anton said softly, "You're not alone, Pauli, you'll never be alone."

Paulina sat back in her chair, then leaned into Tony and pecked his cheek. She smiled, "I know. I have everything to the point that it's embarrassing, and that's pretty humbling if you want to know." The smile disappeared, "I just want to get into the head of the person, who's a kid himself, that thinks blowing away a four year old girl is acceptable behavior, that he'll somehow get points for it." She shivered, "It's the cruelty of it that's doing me in. I'm used to the guys shooting each other, the gang members themselves, I've just never seen it go outside like this. It's so scary, I just want to shut down. I mean, this is not Somalia, not some totally lawless country. I just want to know where it comes from."

"It comes from despair," Anton said softly. "There ain't anythin' easy about bein' our age, not here and not at home." He smiled grimly, "Look at me, look at any one of us. I mean, we're good kids, right? We still each have things pullin' us in every direction. Then..." he looked around while he thought, "just everyday stuff piles on the heat. I mean, there's school, chores, makin' money, things to go to, people to see. It's hard enough, and we got families. You can't tell me it's not a lot, even if ya got all the money in the world. Now look: Me'n Mike's takin' up baseball, of all things, and that means practice, travelin' to games, even less time for everythin' else" He grimaced, "Then other stuff happens, like my Ma gettin' sick, Dwayne messin' with Mike's head, all the other things ya don't plan on, but ya got no choice except deal with it."

Anton was on a roll, and he stayed with it. "That's us, 'n we got regular families, so we can at least yell it out'n have someone to listen. Take that part away, 'n how crazy would we be?" He stopped abruptly, checking around the table, then he smiled brightly at Paulina, "Heh, let me keep the strength, 'cause I'm lookin' at the most perfect girl the Lord ever put on this fine Earth." He stared at her, "We can't change things here, Pauli, not now anyhow. Maybe someday..."

I could see the defeat in Paulina's eyes, but Anton was right. We were all kids still. Maybe someday, somehow, we could come back as adults and stop the violence. Well, that's wishful thinking. Loads of adults were already working hard to change things, their successes hard to measure. There were all kinds of programs for kids, from art and music to sports and science. The problem was that the gang members, the really hard-core ones, scoffed at those things and stuck to their own turf. It was easy there, no effort required to score money, sex or drugs. There was no future, either, but those kids lived without futures from the day they were born.

Juan lived there every day, and I heard it from him, especially about the Puerto Ricans, though the other ethnic gangs were no different in their basic thinking. The gang itself was a survival mechanism that fed on itself. Some turned to drugs and crime, others didn't, and the ones that didn't probably also didn't turn out better citizens in the long run, just ones with smaller criminal records. The guys from the worst gangs, the ones who managed to surviv without long jail time, eventually grew out of it. They got jobs, usually something menial, but not always. A lot of them tried to atone, got jobs counseling current gang members, but they didn't have better success rates than the social workers and teachers who were trained in it.

I think guys like my father made as much difference as anyone. He didn't have any prohibitions against gang members in his places , just their colors, which weren't allowed in his stores. Out of uniform, those kids were like anyone else, just hungry, in need of some company and some loud music. My dad built his business on giving kids what they wanted, which was stuff they could afford, a jukebox full of whatever was current, and freedom to carve and magic-marker their current loves into the woodwork or the bathroom stalls, which all got replaced every few years, right on the Christmas holidays. Space on the booths and walls got limited after awhile, and there was always a new crowd all eager to immortalize themselves.

Dad saved the old panels in a rented space, because sometimes people would come back looking for a part of their past, and it would be there in chronological order. There was one piece, framed over our fireplace, a thing that people often asked about. It was stained and varnished plywood,, like the rest, and it read "D + T" over a heart that contained, "77." That stood for my uncles, Dave and Tim, and the first year they knew they loved each other, and the first year my dad knew he was loved.

That chunk of wood meant a lot to my dad, more than anything else we had. My father and mother both had messed up childhoods, and Timmy and I were resigned to the fact that we'd never know all the details. Dad connected up with Dave and Tim, and he had a new starting point. He met my mom shortly after that, and they both consider the day they met as the day they were born. I knew that Barry's sister was my grandmother, but I'd never met her, and now she was dead. I never heard a word about my other grandparents, and even as a little kid I'd seen the stuttering frustration my questions brought out in my parents, so I stopped asking long ago. My legacy began with my own parents, and only extends back to the day they met. That thought makes me smile sometimes, because it's easy to remember, and I only have to live up to my folks' expectations which don't include any details. I'm supposed to be happy and do good things. More specifically, I was to 'think good thoughts, do good things, and love good people'.

There was a day in my dad's life when two gay boys clicked some kind of light on in his head, and he went from being a dope dealer to Mr. Responsible Citizen overnight. He was more than responsible, really, spending lots of time at City Hall pushing issues that mattered to him. He helped to get an alternative High School going, where kids who didn't fit in to regular school could go, for instance, and he pushed for things like safer parks, more access for kids to town facilities, and a lot of little things that mattered.

Whatever my parents' histories were, individually or collectively, I guess I was glad I was born to them, and I knew exactly what Anton was referring to. There was pressure enough on us; just fitting in was hard enough, and there were lots of things to do. If I had to face it on my own, I could see myself seeking solace in a crowd, maybe even a substance. Right then, what I felt was passion, and that was new to me. It seemed seductive and dangerous, all too easy to jump in and get hurt, but impossible not to.

I had to call Melanie, ask if she still even liked me after the night before. I was putting more weight into gang warfare than my own love life, and it wasn't fair to her. What we'd done was a momentous act for both of us, and Melanie meant more to me than anyone else in the world.

She was in my life big time, and people out of my life could shoot themselves all they wanted. I hated that they did it, but that was them and not me.

I picked up two plates and stood up, suddenly smiling to both myself and the others, "Let's clean up. I have to call Mel, and what's anybody want to do today?"

Annie spoke up, "Can we just stay in? When are your parents coming back?"

I shrugged, "I don't know, last I heard they were staying a few more days. Maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day. They'll be back for New Year's Eve for sure."

Annie smiled, "They must be having a good time then."

I smiled, "They're having a blast. Mom said the snow drifts are up to the eaves on Doc's house."

Paulina and Tony left the kitchen, saying they'd pick up the family room. Mike and Annie insisted they'd clean up the kitchen, so I went up to my room and called Melanie, her mother answering.

"Oh, well hello, David. Are you alright after last night? Melanie told me about your ordeal."

"I'm fine. Oh man, I totally forgot I was on the phone with her when that all started. She doesn't think I'm dead or all full of holes does she?"

I loved Mel's mom. She was laid back and proper at the same time. "Well, she did sit up half the night waiting to hear from you, then your name never showed up on the news. She tried to call you, David. Many times." Her voice softened, "Let me get her, she'll be so happy to know you're still well."

Oh no. I felt like such a jerk right then. I'd called Melanie from Juan's when everything was going crazy, then never called back. When she tried to call me was probably when I was in the hot tub or when the music was cranked up downstairs.

She came on, "Hi. I thought you forgot about me."

Good, she wasn't angry. "Me? Forget about you? That day won't come." Whew.

I went on to tell her what had happened after I talked to her, the probable reasons I didn't hear the phone, then we talked out our feelings about all that had gone down. When we had that out of our systems, she asked, "What's on the agenda for today? Anything special?"

"No, nothing special," I said. "I think Annie's had enough excitement, she just wants to stay here and chill out, so why don't you come over?"

I waited while she asked her mother, then she said, "Give me an hour. I love you."

I smiled, "I love you, too. You...you're not upset or anything, are you? I mean, about what we did yesterday?"

She said happily, "I'm not upset, hon. It was wonderful."

I grinned at the phone, almost laughing at my thoughts. "I'm glad to hear you say that. You know, there's always the risk of overdoing things, but when you really like something, you should do it more than once."

Mel laughed, "Is that a promise? I can be there in forty five minutes."

I laughed, "Oh, please hurry then, Sweetie. I'll be waiting with bells on."

She started giggling, "Is that all you'll have on? I can probably leave right now."

What a prospect. "Um, give me time to clean up, or I'll just scare you away. I'll see you when you get here."

We rang off, and I jumped in the shower, then shaved and all that. I got dressed and went downstairs, still barefoot, thinking I'd find everyone in the family room, but it was empty. I found Mike and Tony at the kitchen table drinking coffees and talking worriedly between themselves. "What's up?" I asked, startling them both. "Where's the girls?"

Mike said, "They're both talkin' to their folks. Annie's mom called here, all ripped because Annie never called to say if she was okay. We um, we might hafta go home. They heard about all the shootin', and they don't think it's safe here. Paulina's gettin' the same, I think."

My heart sank, and my stomach knotted up. "How'd they hear about it?"

Tony said, glumly, "CNN. I guess it's on all the news, even my folks knew. They ain't makin' me come home." He smirked, "I told Ma about the money I had, and Daddy told her to have me stay another week, see what else happens."

That made me and Mike both smile. I turned to Mike, "What about you, Mice?"

He shot me a dark look, then mumbled. "I don't know. Nobody was home, so I left a message that I'm fine here." His look saddened, "I wanna stay all the time we planned, but if Annie has to go, then I do too."

I sat down heavily, "I understand that. How bad is it?"

Mike looked grim. "Pretty bad. Annie's mom called, then she wanted to talk to one of your folks, and Annie had to tell her they weren't here. They were havin' words, and Annie was startin' to cry when she booted me out." Mike put his head in his hands, looking away. "I don't know, Davy. Maybe we should go. I don't want Annie in trouble, and this trip's been tough on her from the get-go."

I started to reach for Mike, but he pulled back. "Don't, Davy," he looked up. "Just don't, okay? It's not your fault, don't even think that." He reached over and awkwardly grabbed my hand. "You know what I think of you, and that won't change. I gotta think about Annie now, and she is sick, and her mother is really pissed off."

I stared at Mike for a moment, glanced at Anton, who was just looking away, and said quietly, "Thanks, Mike. For not blaming me, I mean. You've changed since we met, and all for the good. You do what you have to do. Stay if you can, go if you can't stay, but do what you have to do. You'll never make me feel bad by doing that."

Mike looked at me and gave a little smile, squeezing my hand. "Thanks, Davy; I knew you'd say that."

Tony smirked, "If ya knew it, why'd ya get worried?"

Mike looked at Tony in disbelief. "I didn't know it-know it, I just knew it, there's a difference, you know."

"What difference?" Paulina's voice startled us all.

Tony smiled, "Between knowin' and knewin', I guess. Let Mike tell ya, so I kin hear too."

Paulina sat on Tony's lap, kissed his cheek and whispered, "I can stay if we're staying." She kissed him again, "They're worried a lot, but I'm me and they're them, and they trust me." She kissed Tony again, "That's the difference between knowing and knewing. I knew it, was sure of it, then I heard it said. Now I know it."

Tony wet his lips like he was going to say a lot, then said, "I see," which cracked me and Mike up.

The doorbell rang, and I jumped up and ran to it, hugging Melanie the second she stepped inside, kissing her gently, then wanting more and going for it. Oh, she felt good, even in her winter coat. I let her go so she could take it, and her hat and gloves off, then hung them up for her. Then I hugged her again, "How is it outside?"

She pulled me back to her, smiling. "I never bought these before," she said, holding up a package of condoms. "It's not the interesting experience I expected."

I grinned and pulled her hand in, snatching the little box. "Jesus, put those away. What'll people think?"

Mel grinned, "Would it be too melodramatic if I said, Frankly, darling, I don't give a damn?"

I loved her, and I gave her a squeeze, laughing, "No; it's not at all melodramatic. In fact, I love that sentiment. I just have one question."

She giggled, "And what would that be?"

I held up the box, "You bought a three pack?"

It was my turn to giggle at her surprised face, then she turned it back on me, whispering, "Don't worry, it's an all night store, should the need arise."

We both cracked up, hugging each other there in the hallway. I finally settled down some and took her hand, "Come on; we're in the kitchen."

We'd just finished greetings when Annie stomped in, looking very perturbed. When she saw Melanie there, she stopped short and smiled a pleasant greeting, then her frown reappeared, and she crossed her arms. "Honestly, that woman will drive me to drink one of these days. Arrrrgh."

Then she smiled and gave Mike a hug from behind. "We're staying, and that's final." She looked around, a little embarrassed, and smiled, "Don't mind me; I'm just totally annoyed right now. Honestly, my mother will let Clay and Jim wander to the corners of the earth without a worry. Let it be me, though, and the whole band changes, never mind the tune. You watch. When we get home, she'll have a new gray hair, and I'll be solely to blame."

Mike was trying not to snicker, but he was quaking a little and Annie felt it. She brought her hands up to his neck and fake-strangled him, suddenly laughing. "If you think it's funny, Mice, you can stay at my house for the first week we're back. I'll stay with your nice, understanding family. Then you'll see what I'm up against."

Mike glowered, "Don't...call...me...Mice. It's a hard 'c', as in 'cake'."

Annie winked at the rest of us, "Oh, I get it. A hard 'c ', as in hard case."

Mike looked exasperated, and we all laughed. He reached around and landed Annie in his lap, both of them laughing. I was relieved that they could stay, and glad that they both seemed happy again. I said, "We can do something if you want. If you just want to hang around, I'm all for that, too."

Tony looked up, "Can we go sleddin' again? That was fun."

Annie clapped her hands, "Oh, let's do that. Good idea, Tony."

Everyone else was 'yesing' happily, so sledding it was, and I sure wasn't complaining. When we were getting ready, Annie said, "If you can get me to the store after, I'll make some nice fried chicken tonight."

Mike jumped at that idea, crying, "Wait'll you taste it, Davy. Annie's chicken is sooo excellent."

When Melanie found out it was real Southern fried chicken they were talking about, she made Annie promise to let her help so she could learn how. Then, when we were ready for the weather, we went sliding, and had a great time.

The sky was blue, and the sun was out in force, but it was a cold day. The hill had been compacted almost to ice, so it was really fast, and we had a ball for a few hours. On the way back to the house, we decided to go to McDonald's instead of cooking lunch.

It was funny there. In line to order, Tony was looking at the menu, and said, "I never had a Big Mac before."

A lady in the next line, holding onto two young kids, grinned, "You never had a Big Mac? That's un-American." and she laughed, making the rest of us laugh.

Tony's ears reddened a little, but when it was his turn to order, he got two Big Macs. Then, when we were eating, he said, "It's okay, kinda boring. Ma's are better."

He said it so matter-of-factly that everyone laughed. He went on, "I'm serious." He looked at his sandwich, "This is turnin' to goosh and it looks good, but I don't taste anythin' 'cept the salt I put on it." He smiled sheepishly, "I got two, and I'll eat 'em both, but this ain't nuthin special."

A soft song started with Annie, and the rest of us joined in, "Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, and a sesame seed bun," then we all cracked up.

Tony laughed with us. "If they call this sauce special, I don't even wanna know what they start with."

That was good for a general laugh, and it confirmed for me personally that most people didn't care what they put in their mouths. My Dad made his living with hamburgers, hot dogs, and milk shakes, and what he sold for about the same price were so far away from what you could get at a chain, that the difference was almost pathetic.

Our meal at McDonald's had filled us up, but that's it. It was quick, but there was no joy in the food, no milk in the shakes, no real flavor in anything but the fries, which weren't half bad. Who ever left a restaurant like that commenting on how good the food was? Who?

I'm prejudiced, so no more. We drove from the restaurant to the supermarket so Annie could do her thing, and we all did our thing. It was pretty funny. Mike and Annie went off to get what they needed for fried chicken, Paulina took Tony for a tour of the market, and Mel and I ended up doing vegetables, then the cheese counter, because Mel wanted to make a Greek salad with feta cheese.

Mike and Annie had barely left us when a breathless Mike ran up and asked, "You gonna ask anyone else?" He spotted my cell phone, "Call Juan, Call Paul., call everyone you know. I need a count."

I said, smiling at his intensity, "You don't have to feed the world, Mike, just us is fine."

He shook his head, "You don't get it, this stuff is good. If you have Annie's chicken, then go braggin' about it when you never invited your friends over, they're gonna cut your ..." he glanced at Mel and blushed, "... they'll cut your foot off."

I said, "Okay consider them there. What's that add up to? Let's see, there's six of us, then Juan and Guy, Vinnie and date, Tom and date, Seth, Paul and maybe a date...that's," I'd been counting on my fingers, "fifteen max. You sure you want to do this?"

Mike nodded quickly, "Fifteen. Got it. We'll meet you at the checkout."

With that, he ran off to find Annie, while I called people to ask them over. I didn't get hold of everyone, but they'd try with each other, and the worst that would happen would be a lot of leftovers. We bumped into Mike and Annie once when we were walking around, and my eyeballs bugged at the contents of their cart. "Jesus." I cried, "How many chickens did you buy?"

"Nine," Annie said. "Do you know where the spice aisle is?"

"Nine chickens?"

Annie looked at me, "Most people eat four pieces. Others eat more." She was staring blankly at me and turned to Mike. "Get two more chickens; I just thought of who those others are." She smiled at me, "I bet there's none left, not one piece, and no cheating."

I laughed, "Why would I cheat?"

"Because boys love to win. No prizes, okay? If there's a piece of chicken left, you win. If it's all gone, I win."

I grinned and held out my hand to shake, "Deal." just as Mike walked up clutching two more chickens to his chest.

"There's one more there," he said to Annie. He put the chickens in the cart, and she smiled, just shaking her head no.

We walked with them to the spice aisle, and Annie found what she was looking for, then we saw Tony and Paulina, still just touring with nothing in their hands, except they were holding hands. Tony was all goo-goo eyed, and said, "This place has everything. Did ya see the garden displays?"

I laughed out loud. "They have garden displays?" I'd been to this store dozens of times, and walked right past what was in the middle, which was a lot. I didn't know they had a garden center to begin with, much less one that would be open in winter.

Tony was excited, so we left Mel and Paulina with Mike to shop, while he showed me. It was funny and fascinating at the same time. I wasn't into dirt myself, but I helped my dad in the yard, and I wondered if he knew about this oasis in the supermarket. They sold dirt in plastic bags, and all different dirts, like specialized dirts. I laughed, "Dirt for everything under the sun, huh Tony?"

He laughed, too, "Yeah, and for every season. Look at this... winter potting soil."


I leaned closer to see what he was pointing to, then cracked up, because they did sell winter potting soil, and there were people putting it in their carts, right along with their milk and bananas. I tried to put it together in my mind, and it didn't work out.

"Okay, lets see what we need today. There's bread, of course, maybe some nice steaks for dinner, cereal for breakfast, and, oh yeah! For sure we can't forget dirt. Special dirt at that. Winter dirt."

I collapsed into Tony, laughing, and he was just as foolish. We laughed. Oh Lord, we laughed until some extra-junior store manager type came over to us and tried to break it up.

He had no success, because Tony said, "Don't get on our case, man. We came here for spring dirt, and all ya have is this winter crap, an' it's funny that ya only have the winter stuff when spring's comin' on so soon. Is it a big difference? I'm only askin' 'cause we'll be needin' dirt soon."

I was laughing hard and I was getting cramps, but Tony just looked coolly at the kid, who seemed dumbfounded. "Um...I'll have to ask the manager. How much would you be needing?"

Tony put his hand on his chin and looked at the bags. "I'm not sure. Does it come in bigger bags? I'm thinkin' about nine yards for me." He looked at me, "How much for you, Davy?"

Right, drag me into it. At least it made me stop laughing, and I calculated the volume of my bedroom, thinking that was a good starting point. "I'll probably need sixty-six yards myself." I said, with a straight face.

"Right," he replied, "so we're talking around seventy five yards here? I don't know if we deal in yards, but let me ask the boss."

I said, "Fine, we'll be shopping somewhere."

The poor guy looked wounded, "I'll be right back, it won't take a minute. Can't you wait?"

Tony looked around anxiously, then at the guy, "Sorry, we're here for food too. He smirked, "You find out, then you'll know the next time we're here. Thanks."

We left the guy standing there, then looked for the others, who were satisfied that they had what they needed. We drove home questioning the wisdom of a Greek salad with fried chicken, but the girls all thought it sounded fine. Annie said it didn't matter what you had before and after the chicken, just what you had with it, and she was making mashed potatoes and cream gravy, which sounded good to me.

* * * * * * * *

"Do you know anyone with a cat?" Annie asked as she extracted the first bag of innards from a chicken. Mike was getting the other chickens out of their wrappers and dropping them in the sink.

"A cat?" I asked, "There's cats around, but I don't know who they belong to."

"Never mind," she said.

Tony cried out, "Don't toss the innards. I'll make the livers if you guys don't want 'em."

Annie said, "Here you go, then, as she put two of the little sacs on a plate. I'll put them right here, then after the chicken's cut up and seasoned, you can have the kitchen to your self, and I mean all to yourself."

Tony grinned, "I know, I know. Ma always takes a walk when Daddy and I make our innards."

They bantered back and forth like that until all the chickens were washed and Annie went to work cutting them up. I asked if they needed any help. "No, not really," Annie said. "I just want to get the seasoning on, then we'll just wait a few hours. You don't have to stay if you don't want to."

I felt Mel's hand tighten on mine and smiled, "I guess we'll go upstairs and listen to music or something, then."

Mike was dumping wrappers into the trash, and didn't look up. "Have fun. I think we'll do the same thing."

"See you later, then," I said, as we headed for the door.

"Davy," Annie said, "What time did you tell people?"

"Oh, I said around eight. Is that okay with you?"

She grinned, "Perfect. See you later on."

I glanced at the kitchen clock. Two-thirty, that gave us lots of time.

* * * * * * * *

The most blissful afternoon of my life came back to reality when Melanie sighed, "I should get started on the salad."

I kissed her, feeling the skin on her arms. God, what skin she had, as smooth as silk. I must have felt like old leather to her. "Mmm, already?" I whispered, "Can't it wait?"

She sniggled away, "Not forever," and pulled the covers down. Damn. I didn't deserve her, I really didn't, but she was there with me, and we loved each other, and I knew what real love felt like. Melanie was outstandingly pretty to start with, and I got lots of grief about that. Not grief, really, but people were jealous.

That wasn't fair, there wasn't anything to be jealous of. Mel was inherently shy, even with her good friends. There's no rhyme or reason sometimes, I guess. She came from a well-off family, she was pretty, and lots of guys fantasized over her. It was amazing to me how un-shy she'd been that afternoon, and it continued. "Want to take a shower together?" she asked with a glint in her eye.

Well, hello. That was the surprise question of the year, and it stunned me into a gape, which made her giggle. "Oh, come on. Don't be bashful now."

I grinned, and managed, "Okay." Damn. I wasn't bashful, but hearing her say that made me feel that way, but only for a moment. The sight of her wonderful backside disappearing into the bathroom put me in full chase mode, and I was with her before she reached the faucet. ***

They say that showering with a friend saves water, but I doubt the wisdom of that. We probably used five times as much as we would have if we'd showered separately. As a pleasurable pastime, washing each other was right up there with sex. And, unlike the latter, you could just go on and on.

We were a very clean couple when we headed down to the kitchen, which smelled of liver, but not too badly. We made the salad in the sink, because we were making a lot, and it would be easier to transfer it to a big bowl. It was going to be good, too. We had three kinds of lettuce, onions, peppers, radishes, lots of other things.

We had fun working together, the division of labor feeling natural enough, the desire to do well being mutual, and the growing love between us as clear as it could be. We both liked to cook, but now it was fun as well as pleasurable. We fed each other tastes of whatever we were working on at the moment, giggled and laughed a lot, and when we were done we had one of the finest salads ever created, all arranged attractively in our largest salad bowl.

We were just wrapping it when Mike and Annie walked in, holding hands. We greeted them, and it was a moment of mutual comprehension, bringing satisfied smiles to all of us. Being in love gives you a look, and making love gives you a glow, and we all had both the look and the glow. There was no need for comment.

Annie sent Mike to the garage for the trays of chicken parts, and said to me, "I need a big, deep frying pan with a lid."

"Electric okay?" I asked.

"Electric's fine."

I got the pan out, and Annie put in chunks of lard and set the temperature, then went about mixing flour and spices. When Mike came in, he said, "You're gonna lose the bet, Annie, there's no way we're gonna eat all this."

Annie shrugged, "So I lose, it'll be fun trying."

I watched her mix up the flour and seasonings for as long as it took, then she put everything in a grocery bag, shook it to mix it up, and dropped in a few chicken breasts and shook it again, shaking off perfectly coated pieces of chicken. I was salivating before it ever hit the pan, having seen the seasonings, and Mel and I excused ourselves so they'd have room to work in.

When we sat down on the sofa, Melanie asked, "What's this about Mike being gay, anyhow? I just don't get that from him. He really had a boyfriend once?"

She put a hand on my wrist, waiting for an answer. I said, "I don't know, Mel, not about being gay, anyhow. Mike loved a boy once, a boy named Jack, that much I know for sure. He was absolutely crushed when Jack got killed in an accident. He was a real mess when I first met him, like fun one minute and crying the next. I mean, he was really in love with Jack. Now, I don't know. He's not all the way gay, and you can tell that from Annie, but it's still there. He's bisexual, Mel. It's strange in a way, but I guess it's okay."

She cuddled up to me, "I didn't mean it wasn't okay, I was just curious, because there's absolutely no doubt that he loves Annie." She kissed my cheek, "I"m not questioning for any reason, it's just my curiosity running rampant." She pulled back a little so she could look me in the eye. "You have nice friends, Davy." She got closer, if that was possible, "You've built yourself a nice little realm, and I'm...I don't know how to put it, I'm overjoyed to be part of it."

I pulled her to me, "I didn't build anything, Mel, it just happened around me. I can deal with gay because I grew up with it. I like Mike because I do. What can I say?"

She kissed me and cuddled up, "I like Mike, too. He's a beautiful person, and I already love him. That brings up a question. Is it right that half the reason I love you is because of the people you choose to love yourself?"

"Huh?" I mumbled, thinking about that. "I don't know, I love people because of their qualities as people, I guess." I looked a question at her, "What's that got to do with us?"

She pulled back a little, engaging my eyes with her own. "It's everything, David." She smiled, "I see a lot of you through the friends you choose, and you choose some really fine people." She settled back against the cushion, "Let's go through the loop, and you tell me if I have this right. Mike's your best friend?"

I thought, then said, almost dreamily, "Yeah, the best friend I ever had. I never felt closer to anyone before you came along."

She asked, "And you don't care if he's gay? Okay, part gay?"

"No, I don't, " I responded.

"You've known your other friends a lot longer, though, haven't you?"

"It's not the length of time, Mel, it's...it's the connection you feel, and I felt it the first time I met Mike." I snickered, "He was sizing me up as a sex toy at first, but when we started talking, it was like there was always something there, like an understanding that goes clear through you. I don't know how to describe it, but even when we just met it was like we'd always known each other. I'll tell you one thing, having that connection with Mike makes it easier to understand other people, too, to be a better friend, to do more than just joke around."

She eyed my curiously, "That's new to you, like with Juan and Paul and those guys?" She smiled, "I just thought you were this genius with relationships."

I laughed, "No, it's pretty new. It's not like Mike taught me anything, more like it came to both of us at the same time, and we've both been working on it. Everyone's working on it, really, it just grows because it feels good when your friendships are more than superficial. I'm happier all around than I ever was." I got close and kissed her quickly, "Mostly because of you, though. You make me very happy."

We cuddled up then, and were surprised when Anton burst in from outside, holding out a hand to a hobbling Paulina, who winced every time she stepped on her left foot. I'd thought they were upstairs all along. I jumped up, "What happened?"

Paulina said, "I twisted my ankle. It feels like it's swelling up."

Tony and I helped her to the sofa, and she laid down on her back. I said, "Here, put your foot up on the end, I'll get some ice."

Tony started unlacing her boot, and I hurried to the kitchen, where I filled a plastic bag with ice and wrapped it in a dish towel, explaining quickly what had happened to Mike and Annie. Tony was gently pulling the boot off when I got back, then he got her sock off. Her ankle looked a little puffy, but it wasn't turning dark, so I fit the ice around where it looked the most swollen, then had to hold it there because it kept trying to fall off.

Mike hurried in and asked, "What did you do?"

Paulina smiled, "We went back out sledding. I stepped in a rut, it's no big deal."

I asked, "You walked all the way back here?"

Tony said, "A guy there with his kids saw it happen. He gave us a ride." He sat down on the floor and took Paulina's hand, stroking it. "Is it better now?"

Paulina said, "It doesn't hurt now that I'm off of it, but I could use a Motrin or something like that."

I said, "Coming up," and went to find something. When I came back, Annie was there, kind of massaging the damaged area and talking quietly with Paulina. I gave her the pill and a glass of water, then went looking for Mike in the kitchen.

He was busy frying, and surprised that I came back. "Anything I can do?" I asked.

He laughed, "There's lots you can do. Feel like peeling potatoes?"

I laughed, "No. Anything else I can do?"

Mike gave me a glare, and I said, "Okay, okay, potatoes it is. Where are they?"

"On the floor next to the fridge. There's two ten-pound sacks."

I grumped about there being twenty pounds, but took the first bag and dumped them into the sink. After washing them off, I started peeling, and we kept up an idle chat for awhile, then Annie came back and took over frying duty, and after awhile Melanie came in and helped me with the potatoes. We were all surprised when Tony and Paulina walked in, Paulina heavily favoring one foot, but she said she felt better. She even offered to help but was sent to sit and watch.

I was watching Annie, noting the practiced ease she had determining when chicken was ready, how she hustled it out of the pan onto paper towels, then into the oven to stay warm. That oven was really loaded, too, and I wondered how much more she could fit in there, but she managed with batch after batch, until all the chicken was cooked, then she started making batches of gravy in the frying pan, which she poured into a larger pot.

We got the potatoes into a giant pot and hefted it onto the stove, and decided that so many was going to take a long time, so we all plopped down at the table, then I got right up to get us drinks. When I sat back down, Mike and Annie were discussing the odds of how possible it would be to mash that many potatoes, and it didn't sound very hopeful at first, but they came up with ideas.

I was laughing along with everyone else, because it was the stupidest conversation we'd ever heard, but when the potatoes seemed done, Annie put them in a smaller pot to mash them, then put them back in another big pot. Other people were showing up by then, first Paul and Seth (Paul with a girl named June), then a whole crowd at once, and by the time Juan and Guy arrived, Juan with a date, Annie said the food was ready.

I lost our dollar-less wager. That chicken was excellent, and the only leftovers were crumbs and greasy mouths, along with lots of potatoes and a few green beans. Annie had outdone herself. Half the chicken was skinless and battered, the rest had the skin on and was crispy, for those of us who worried not about our hearts and arteries. That was for another day, but I got so stuffed I thought I might explode.

When we were all quietly recuperating in the family room, I realized something about the day. Kitchens, ours anyhow, were great places for families to gather, but they were also great places to build friendships. Annie and Mike had spent a whole lot of time putting the meal together, but we'd all added to it in our own way, and had fun doing it.

I looked around the room, feeling pretty satisfied, not just with the meal, but with the people who were my friends. I was half of a couple now, and most people were. I didn't know how serious some of the pairings were. These turned out to be first-time dates with those particular girls for Paul and Juan, but they were getting along. Tom and Vinnie had both been seeing their dates for some time, and they had built up a comfort level at least.

I loved Melanie, Mike loved Annie, and Tony and Paulina were so star-struck it was funny sometimes.

That left Seth and Guy, and I sensed an attraction between them, right along with a huge reluctance to show it in public. I was so tempted to say something, but I couldn't find the words, and Juan finally did what I wanted to. Seth and Guy had been quiet, but looking at each other not so furtively all night.

Juan stood up and picked Guy up by his belt and shirt collar, and deposited him in Seth's lap, saying, "Get it on guys, nobody cares, and you're making me crazy." He grinned at me and winked, "See, Loomis? Even us dumb spics, spooks and Polacks get it sometimes."

I looked at Mike, whose eyes led me to Guy.

Guy looked at his brother, a question on his face, then he looked around at the rest of us, the same question there. I looked around, too, and found nothing but inattentive smiles.

Guy smiled for real as he leaned back against Seth as Seth's long arms wrapped around him.

The whole room settled back, a nice day after some awful ones, some different food after the usual.

Annie and Mel had accepted the flattery for their kitchen skills, now Annie had taken her pill and was zonked in Mike's arms. Paulina's ankle was already healing.

Dead kids wouldn't heal, but it never came up that night. Not once, and I felt safe again.

Note: This chapter has been second to the last all along, but the current fnal chapter (59) was written two decades ago, and a lot of the chapters leading to this point have changed. I have to rethink the ending, and probably add a lot to tie up newer loose ends. It may be too much for a single chapter, so hang in there. I'll get it done before Christmas for sure.



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